BUCKHANNON – With two council members absent and at least one question up in the air, Buckhannon City Council tabled its “drug house” ordinance for second consecutive meeting Thursday.
In the absence of councilwoman Mary Albaugh and councilman David Thomas, council voted to reschedule the first reading of the ordinance for its Oct. 18 meeting.
Council members also directed city attorney Tom O’Neill to once again revise the ordinance, narrowing it in scope to apply to only “the worst actors,” according to councilman CJ Rylands.
Language referring to the use of a firearm or weapon in the commission of a drug crime is also likely to be included.
The “drug house” ordinance – which will be Ordinance No. 428 if it passes – provides a legal mechanism for city officials to declare certain properties, including rental properties, public nuisances and issue orders of abatement if they meet certain criteria.
City officials have repeatedly explained the ordinance is intended to target property owners who knowingly allow drug activity to recur in their rental properties, even sometimes participating in that illicit activity.
One major piece of feedback that emerged from an Oct. 2 public forum about the ordinance was that area landlords would like one small word to change: the conjunction “or” to “and.”
Originally, to trigger the process through which a property could be deemed a “drug house,” only one of the following three criteria had to be met: the occurrence of two or more instances of prostitution or the illegal possession, storage or delivery/trafficking of controlled substances on the same property twice within a consecutive two-year period; the crime allegedly committed on the property qualified as a felony, i.e. punishable by imprisonment for one year or more; or the offense was manufacture of a controlled substance, possession of a controlled substance with the intent to deliver or delivery of a controlled substance.
However, landlords at Tuesday’s forum had requested that O’Neill revise the language, changing “or” to “and.” That would mean all three criteria would have to be met for the municipal judge to justify labeling a property a “drug house.”
At the outset of the discussion at Thursday’s council meeting, O’Neill said he’d changed a few minor words based on landlords’ feedback. For example, in one section of the law, the city attorney changed language referring to landlords “being willfully blind” to “being willfully ignorant” to drug activity.
There were other more substantive changes O’Neill had decided to leave up to council, including the or/and question, he said.
Mayor David McCauley asked the city attorney to include an exemption for medical facilities, such as licensed recovery centers.
“Both Dave Thomas and Mary Albaugh wanted to participate, but they are unable to be here tonight,” McCauley also said.
City recorder Colin Reger made a motion to table the ordinance, which was seconded by councilwoman Pam Cuppari and passed unanimously.
Following the decision, the mayor recommended the law require all three criteria to be met for a property to be deemed a drug house.
“I would feel more comfortable going with the conjunction ‘and’ as opposed to ‘or,’” McCauley said.
“That would mean all three elements would have to be present for it to constitute a violation,” he said. “I think it makes sense. It puts a higher bar in place to create this.”
O’Neill observed the change would tighten the ordinance.
“It would target a more narrow scope of behavior,” he said. “I might recommend to council that you include any crimes committed with a firearm or any felony involving a drug offense that includes the use of a firearm.”
Rylands concluded those changes would amend the law to be “pretty specific to targeting the worst actors.”
Reger – who has been opposed to the ordinance since council first began discussing it in early June – said although he believes drugs are evil, his position on the ordinance hasn’t wavered.
“I disagree with the entire premise of it,” he said. “I am philosophically opposed to this.”
One landlord in attendance Thursday night requested the city incorporate a section stating that a written notice be sent to the landlord the first time a qualifying offense occurs on his or her property.
“Will a notice of some kind be sent out to the landlord on the first incident?” Jody Light asked. “As a landlord, I don’t want to wait until the second incident.”
McCauley said he believed that would be fair to the landlord.
“This is a tool for the landlords,” he added. “[If I were a landlord], I would redo my lease to specifically cite this ordinance if it passes.”
Light also she said hoped residents understand the majority of landlords don’t condone the type of criminal activity that would trigger use of the drug house ordinance.
She said most in the city are doing the best they can to screen their tenants and provide a safe, clean place to live to renters.
“I know we come across as a pain in the butt, but honestly, there was 20-some here at the last meeting and 20-30 the other night,” Light said. “We didn’t know – we hadn’t had a copy of the ordinance – so we maybe came off as a little aggressive because we weren’t notified.”
Light said not being directly contacted by city officials was troubling to local landlords.
“I think there was a breakdown in communication somewhere, and someone dropped the ball. I’m not sure where,” she said.
Rylands said although dialogue with landlords has been uncomfortable at times, communication is essential.
“This is a healthy process,” he said, “even though sometimes it doesn’t really feel that way.”
Following Thursday’s meeting, O’Neill said he was definitely changing “or” to “and” and incorporating a firearms or weapons element.
“It will probably be wrapped in with the second [criteria],” he said. “It will probably say ‘use of a firearm in the commission of a felony’ or something like that.”